For fresh and unadulterated food

Ahmed Shatil Alam learns how a strip of paper can solve the formalin-laced food issue in Bangladesh

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For the past few years, the issue of formaldehyde usage, widely known as formalin, a chemical that can kill human beings if consumed in significant amounts, has been one of the most discussed on media. Formalin is used illegally on fishes, foods and vegetables in a bid to delay these perishable products from rotting. The chemical is commonly used in industry for the manufacture of plastic resins that can be used in wood, paper and textile industry.

The chemical which is a solution of about 37 per cent formaldehyde, serves as a disinfectant and preservative for household products, according to Center for Food Safety, Hong Kong. In Bangladesh, the use of formalin began more than a decade back when traders began to use it on fish to keep these fresh for days. Later other traders began to use this on fruits and vegetables.

Since then consumers of Bangladesh have been in a perpetual search for a proper formalin detection machine or kit, which can help them measure the presence of formalin in food items. Following the matter, a team of researchers from BUET has recently invented a formalin detection kit.

The research team led by Mohidus Samad Khan, an associate professor of the chemical engineering department of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, has made a strip of paper. The strip paper- sized around two inches- was made with chemical ingredients to detect the presence of formalin concentration as low as few ppm to as high as 1,000 ppm, says Mohidus Samad.

While talking to New Age Xtra, Samad says that a drop of a drink on the paper that costs only Taka One to make in laboratory can help to determine whether the liquid is safe. To know if any fruit, vegetable or other solid food item is adulterated with formalin, a small amount of water after washing them can be used. The circled portion of the strip will turn purple to show that the liquid sample has formalin in it. ‘When the colour becomes deeper, it means that the food item has more formalin used on it,’ he says.

Along with some of his students from BUET, Samad initiated the research in 2013 with small grants from Buet’s Committee for Advanced Studies and Research, and Buet Chemical Engineering Forum, with an aim to make a low cost, biodegradable and an one-time use kit for the masses in the country, says researcher M Nazibul Islam, who has recently joined as a lecturer at the university.

Under the research, the team has also made a database of 55 food items including fruits, vegetables, beverages and more where formalin is used. ‘This database basically shows the naturally included or generated formalin level in food items to create awareness among the people about formalin in these items,’ Samad adds.

During their research, they have also found that added formalin and calcium carbide used to ripen fruits early can decrease the nutrition levels in fruits, change the taste and increase the acidic value.

In this regard, Nazibul says that in Bangladesh, in most of the cases pure calcium carbide and formalin are not used in foods. Hence many metals like lead, arsenic etc also travel into the human body through these contaminated chemicals, further aggravating human health hazards.

‘The price of the pure form of chemicals are high. Therefore, more than often, businessmen buy and use the contaminated formalin and calcium carbide chemicals,’ he says.

Muzahidul Islam Anik, member of the research group that includes other research students from chemical engineering department at BUET, says that around the first week of March, a team from the research group went to Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, to present their research work at International Conference on Food Security and Nutrition (ICFSN 2017). The group was awarded as the best presenter.

The research team, which claims to have become successful in achieving their aim, has been contacted by some local and international companies interested to commercially manufacture the strip at a global level. ‘We made it from our professional commitment and therefore we have asked all the companies to maintain one thing as must- to keep the cost of the strip as low as possible so that it can be purchased by anyone,’ says Mohidus Samad.